Essay: Established Characters and Player Choice

Introduction

Player choice has been an increasing part of video games in recent times; alternate endings on older titles such as Silent Hill 2 were popular at the time with any kind of dialogue options relegated to old Computer RPGS, but now it seems dialogue options and a branching storyline that changes as you play and reacts to your decisions are the new thing which videogames have embraced.

And it seems like a natural progression playing to the strengths of the videogame medium. Immersion and the increased effect on emotions and urgency on the consumer cannot be replicated by purely visual mediums like movies and television. Unlike a movie, in a videogame you do not simply observe things happening but actively do them, and games seem to have moved away from long movie-like dialogue in favour of keeping the player engaged with giving them input not only in the gameplay sections, but in the story too.

Not all games have moved forwards in doing this. Lauded titles such as The Last Of Us had us be a witness to the decisions which Joel made and challenged us with “Do you agree or not?”, rather than offering us a choice. There is a definite place for games which continue this method of narrative design, and player-choice is still mostly seen in RPGs.

In games which feature these branching storylines and a large amount of player choice in what your character both does and says, there seems to be 2 very clear choices to a designer on the type of character that the player will control. These being an established character with their own backstories and personalities already established, and characters who are more of a blank slate which can be moulded to the liking of the player.

As a Game Designer and naturally being very interested in Narrative Design, I’ve often thought about these two types of characters and the ways in which they strengthen the games that they are in and effect how the choices of the story are shown to the player.

To begin with, I will discuss two characters from different videogames to represent both of these options. For the established character I will be discussing Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher franchise, and for the more ‘blank slate’ character I will be discussing Commander Shephard of Mass Effect.

| Established

geralt1

Geralt of Rivia

Geralt of Rivia, before we even touch the first game of the Witcher franchise, is an already established character with pre-existing relationships, a defined personality and appearance, and traits and quirks that are well known and solidified. He’s a good character whom will go out of his way to help those in need, and at the same time is furiously against those he would deem to be evil and can and will end the lives of individuals who appear to be just that. He is judgemental and un-forgiving in this, but among friends he is sarcastic and has an almost young and immature sense of humour.

Being an already established character, this instantly changes the way in which choices are given to the player. Decisions can only feature a limited spectrum of choices realistic to the character; Geralt would never act in certain ways, and so the options which are offered to the player to choose from need to remain within the bounds of his personality and character traits.

An example of this is one moment during the Witcher 3 when investigating a murder in Novigrad. After investigating the body, you discover that an individual looted the corpse before it was handed over to the morticians. When he admits to what he did and apologizes, you are offered two choices. You can angrily tell him to get out of your sight immediately, or you can punch him in the face.

As you can see, there is no “Forgive him” or “Get out of here, scamp!” options as, realistically, Geralt would never forgive such an action. Geralt will condemn such seedy and nasty tactics such as stealing from a body, and the decisions which are offered to the player accommodate this trait.

Witcher 3 was therefore written with a more focused story in mind than others could do, as you do not decide what kind of character Geralt is but mainly steer him to whichever way his moral compass may land in a situation. Will you angrily condemn a bandit for stealing, or will you attack and kill them? Some options will allow Geralt to be apathetic to certain situations but he will continue to not support actions he would deem wrong or evil.

| Un-established

shephard1

Commander Shephard

Commander Shephard, on the other hand, is less of an established character than Geralt is. At the beginning of the first Mass Effect game you can choose your character’s first name, origin, and class. During the story, there is a lot more freedom to shape Shephard to be the kind of character you want. Rather than offering options simply on a spectrum of what a character like Geralt would do, Mass Effect can offer options of a more broad range.

Paragon and Renegade are the two styles of Shephard which you can be. You can be a force for good in the galaxy, going out of your way to save lives and refuse to buckle your morals under pressure; or you can be a blood-thirsty rogue who does whatever needs to be done to see success, no matter who it costs.

Shephard is not a completely blank slate, despite this choice given to the player. No matter which type of Commander you want to be, Shephard is not evil beyond all recognition or wish galactic-scale destruction. Whether good or bad, they do work to save the galaxy from threats such as the Reapers and they are usually pragmatic and stubborn in their resolve to do tasks such as that. But the means as to how that goal is met is up to the player.

Effect on Narrative

Both types of characters have ways in which they strengthen the narrative of the game and the decisions of the player.

| Established

More focused story-telling

The established character is easier to have explore a more focused story as the narrative does not need to be written almost in half to accommodate wildly different choices being made by the player. Going from Point A to B will usually be more consistent and easier to predict, and it’s the journey which is more the experience than the destination.

CD Projekt wrote Witcher 3 very well in that they offered scenarios with a lot of grey area to them and that enabled Geralt and the players themselves to make more broad, wider-impact choices without sacrificing the consistent of the character. This is arguably a lot harder than being able to offer almost any spectrum of choices the writer wishes to.

Easier to write consistently

Due to them often featuring a wide and pre-existing backstory and, as mentioned above, the stories they’ve involved in often being more focused, its usually easier to write the character as being very consistent in their personality and traits. In games like Mass Effect, you are free to flip back and forth between good and bad, but this can often leave your Shephard acting somewhat un-characteristically based on how they usually interact.

An established character won’t usually run into that issue and not only is it easier on the writer and game designers, but this will allow more focus on the quality of the writing itself.

| Blank Slate

Player Freedom

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Due to not being held down by a pre-established backstory and personality, the range of decisions that can be made, and the consequences which happen because of them, can be of a much wider range that from games which have an already created character. Some games such as Fable even go so far as to allow your character to be absolute good or absolute evil, with you deciding which route you wish to go down.

This improves the freedom of the player substantially in them not only playing the game how they want but experiencing and crafting the story how they want too.

Immersive

One aspect of videogames that will always give it an edge in story-telling over any other medium is the immersive way in which you interact with it, rather than simply view the content. And giving the player control of not only the game but of the story itself can potentially enhance the immersion and increase engagement.

All games can be immersive, but the wide range of choices and the absolute freedom to engage with the game as you see fit in every way possible is a significant factor as to why many RPGs feature even blanker characters than a one like Commander Shephard.

Conclusion

Videogames are an exciting and creative medium for telling stories, being able to tell a story in ways that are otherwise impossible and that will always be their greatest strength and the reasoning as to why videogame stories deserve the accolades which they get. Player choice in games, popularized in less core audiences by Telltale’s games like The Walking Dead and other story-telling titles such as Life is Strange, seems here to stay.

Regarding the essay title itself, and as mentioned before, there is room for all types of games. Stifling creative minds or believing any types of games are “wrong” or “won’t work” is counter-productive to maintain such a creative and progressive industry, and player choice is one such way that the industry is progressing in how they tell a story to the player.

And within that medium, there is room for both established characters and blank characters that allow the player to shape them as they wish. Both strengthen the narrative in different ways and as long as the tory is well written with the type of character in mind, there’s no reason to believe it can’t succeed as an entertaining and potentially thought-provoking story.


Essay: The Portrayal of War in Videogames

This was a 2500 word essay I wrote at University. We were tasked with writing an essay on a video game theme, and I decided that looking at how war is portrayed in games could lead to an interesting essay.

The Portrayal of War in Videogames

| Abstract

War is the physical culmination of human conflict, and has been a popular thematic depiction in media for decades. In this report I will be investigating the portrayal of realistic warfare in videogames, a medium which has been growing substantially through the years; I will be doing this by researching and discussing common thematic principles and the reasoning for their inclusion, as well as the different forms which the videogames can take and the reasons and experience-related differences which can occur from them. The players who play them and the effect these games can potentially have of them will also be discussed. Sources and references are taken from a variety of publications and backgrounds to ensure reliable results and discussion points are brought up.

Introduction

The setting of War has been a common theme portrayed in media through-out the ages, in books, movies, and television series. In modern times it has been used as a form of propaganda to support wars (Paris, 1987) and are considered a highly influential theme on public opinion of current warfare (Griffin, 2010); it has also been used for educational purposes in documentaries or dramatized fictions of real-life actions performed by soldiers in warfare, as well as purely for entertainment purposes.

Not only has it been common in movies and television, but it has become an increasingly common thematic scenario in video-games (Cowlishaw, 2005). Both war and military have become elements found in a variety of modern games, but the portrayal of the same theme can vary across different products to a high degree.

Thematic Elements

Despite the very different portrayal of War between video-games of different genres and even cultures, with militaristic videogames developed in the now growing Eastern European videogame industry (Crawley, 2014) despite initially worrying conditions (Mezihorak, 2004) having a stark difference in nature to Western counterparts, videogames based around War do tend to share some elements to their narrative and experience.

| Realism

Most videogames based upon war are realistic in their aesthetics and events portrayed, though with exaggerations to what an individual can do and liberties taken in order to ensure a fun experience is not corrupted by an overly-realistic simulation of warfare. Authenticity is an important part of these types of games however, and strides will be taken to ensure the realism of what is depicted heightens such a point. (Constantine, 2004)

Photo-realism is often a graphic level aimed for, a term coined in the 80s and one which describes graphics that strive to look as close to real-life as is possible. Though discussion often happens over the importance of graphics in videogames, with some condemning studios for putting graphics above gameplay (Beaudette, 2014), realistic visual styles are thought to increase immersion and impact of real events. A Market Research Group’s study revealed, of their cross-section, 75% of players said a game’s visuals did impact their potential purchase of it, however. (Usher, 2014)

| Violence

Violence is an unavoidable trait of War, and as such is also a common theme with videogames, with many of the most popular games based upon this theme featuring varying, but always consistent in initial appearance, levels of brutality and violence. An employee at a Digital Marketing Agency discussing Call of Duty’s worldwide success (Skipper, 2016) commented that,

“If you want to create a good narrative, you need to create conflict, and violence is a really easy way to create conflict.”

(Yenigun, 2013)

Arguably one of the most potent instances of human conflict would be War itself, and it is commonly used as an easy way to portray realistic conflict to drive narratives, with videogames often depicting fictional wars either in modern times or another time period and not always using conflicts based upon real-life events. (Archer, 2013)

Violence in videogames has been a hot topic for many years, with the discussion of its influence on those who play them being something a large amount of people have dedicated their time to try and either prove or disprove. Studies into if it can cause them to be more violent have returned inconclusive, with no evidence for or against if this is true. (Makuch, 2014), (Dotinga, 2015)

Andy McNab, a Veteran of the British SAS Special Forces, believes that the violence in videogames inherently teaches children morality, in contrast to what many others sometimes believe.

“The characters in games are now as culturally iconic as the likes of David Beckham. And they’re probably better role models than most in normal life. Because, ultimately, the heroes in these games do the right thing. These games are teaching lessons of morality through a well-known medium — violence.”

(Hargreaves, 2012)

| Death

As with violence, death is an unavoidable part of warfare and as such is also an unavoidable part of videogames depicting War. People around the main playable character will often die, whether you learned of their names or not, and their deaths can come in a variety of ways, and are not solely kept to happening only to other soldiers.

Death, however, is not always just happening around the player. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, there is an emotional scene of the main character, Pvt. Jackson, and his team being in the radius of a nuclear warhead being detonated, and the frightening scenes of him crawling through the wreckage and slaughter of his team before finally succumbing to his wounds and you slowly lose control of him (Workman, 2014), (Holleman, 2012). Though death is expected, it is still a powerful and emotional story-telling technique and War videogames arguably utilize it more than any other genre.

Betrayal & Sacrifice

A common element which occurs during videogames based on War is that of sacrifice or betrayal; it is often used as a narrative option to add some form of meaning and reasoning behind a death of a character that is known to the player, unlike the many deaths which are often witnessed. Examples of this are Mordin Solus in the videogame Mass Effect 3, who sacrifices himself to bring about an end to a conflict which has occurred over centuries, and the character Ghost in Modern Warfare 2 who is shot before being able to react to a betrayal as the player character themselves lays there dying.

“No Russian”

An extremely controversial scene in the videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Revoir, 2009) was an optional mission (making it optional being retroactively added in due to the potentially distressing nature of the actions depicted) that had the player control a soldier whom had infiltrated a terrorist organisation amidst a heightening tension and War. This group of enemies you are with enter an airport with firearms drawn and proceed to kill every civilian they see, making their way through the airport leaving none alive.

One of the designers had this to say about what they were attempting to accomplish with the mission No Russian.

“We were trying to do three things; sell why Russia would attack the US, make the player have an emotional connection to the bad guy Makarov, and do that in a memorable and engaging way.”

(Senior, 2012)

Death here was used as a tool to heighten the player’s negative emotions in regards to the main villain of the videogame, Makarov, with the controversy mainly being around the use of innocent civilians as the victims rather than soldiers, with the former not being expected to be killed mercilessly during conflict.

War as a Game

| First Person Shooter

One of the most common types of videogames based on War are first-person shooters and includes franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. They are played through the eyes of a soldier, sometimes switching to different soldiers in differing positions of the war, with a few elements often being shared across iterations of this genre.

Lower Ranked

One shared element often seen in first-person shooter videogames is playing as a lower ranked soldier, often being a Private or Corporeal rather than anyone of a higher rank. This is usually used as a tool for easier progression in a videogame, where following orders and being moved through a linear and cinematic path being easier on level and game designers than otherwise. (Dyer, 2012)

| Strategy 

Another common videogame format which is utilized for war-based thematic videogames is that of the real-time strategy game, which would include Company of Heroes and Age of Empires, a modern and medieval take on the concept, respectively. Some strategy games are played in real-time and others are turn-based, allowing different sides or teams a dedicated ‘turn’ each to decide what to do. The latter is considered much more approachable, whereas real-time feels more real. (Shafer, 2013)

Higher Ranked

An RTS is the opposite of the FPS, in that you do not play as a single soldier, but instead command what is often an entire army or squadron of soldiers and a variety of other available units, such as vehicles. This is a stark comparison to the common FPS where you are not being told what needs to be done, but instead ordering units to do things at your whim.

FPS VS RTS

| Appeal

The two very different, main forms of War-based videogame product may depict similar events, with Call of Duty 4 and Company of Heroes sharing missions where you control the SAS, a Special Operations division of the British Army, they do so in very differing ways and the appeal of each shifts wildly to suit different players.

Pacing in either types of videogames vary wildly, with the density of narrative content of the FPS, being much faster in nature, being higher than that of a strategy game which tackles larger scale warfare over a longer period of time. (Shafer, 2013) This can appeal to different audiences; not every player likes fast-paced titles, and so may be swayed more towards the tactical mind required in a strategy game rather than the fast reaction times needed in a first-person war shooter.

Player Types

There are a variety of player-types that have been researched and discovered, with Bartle having produced the most unified example of them which is used by many as a basis for discussion even today. (Stewart, 2005). Those who play videogames based on War often fall into either the Killers or Achievers category; the former being relatively self-explanatory, those who decide to kill others and tend to be emotionally detached somewhat, and the latter referring to players who long for a sense of achievement. Something military videogames offer.

As well as Bartle, there is an additional temperament table used to judge players, Kerisey, with most fans of videogames depicting War likely falling into the Artisan category; words associated to players of this category are “realistic, tactical, manipulative, pragmatic, action-focused, sensation-seeking.”

In the article sourced above written by Bart Stewart for Gamasutra, he cross-referenced the two player-type tests above, as well as some additional ones, in order to create a more in-depth and unified table for judging players. This is below,

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Unified Player-Type Table (Stewart, 2005)

The two I listed both fall together; players will favour Power, with solve problems found within videogames by their performance most of all, and their overall goal when playing the videogame title is to ‘Do’ things, rather than Have, Know, or Become something else. I believe this to be an apt description of general players who enjoy titles such as Call of Duty, and the style of player those types of games often cater for.

Empowerment

War-like videogames, with you playing sometimes as the one soldier who accomplishes monumental feats and saves the lives of many others, can be considered very empowering to the player, featuring just enough challenge to not be impossible, but to also have accomplishment upon completion of events. (Avard, 2014). As Alex Avard phrased it,

It’s a form of empowerment that can’t be effectively described by mere words but perhaps instead by an analogy to watching a Michael Bay film; you know that it’s far from the best or most satisfying experience out there, but that child-like nature in all of us can’t help but indulge in the chaos and destruction on display.

(Avard, 2014)

However, not all empowerment can be considered a good thing. Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 Norwegian Attacks, commented during his testiomony that he had used the videogame Call of Duty in order to train for the shootings which occurred, which caused the death of 69 people. (Narcisse, 2012). The use of weapons and becoming a soldier can have a powerful effect on people, though Breivik was declared clinically insane prior to explaining this. (BBC, 2011)

Comparison with other Entertainment Mediums

Videogames have joined other entertainment mediums like Television and Movies in the portrayal of warfare, and share a variety of similarities with them.

Historical Accuracy is one element shared between all entertainment mediums, and is the case in videogames as well; the second Call of Duty videogame was “focused more on historical accuracy than its predecessor” (Bacchus, 2011), and features battles in the American and Pacific episodes of World War 2. It features the same campaign as Easy Company took during the European Liberation, featured in the military series Band of Brothers, both featuring Bastogne as a location. Though both were naturally dramatized for playing and viewing entertainment, respectively, they do remain accurate to the events which happened. (Smith, 2001)

Despite violence being shown in all mediums, videogames tend to not show-case the extreme violence that movies have done. Saving Private Ryan is one of the most critically acclaimed movies depicting the D-Day landings at Omaha beach, with a variety of perfect reviews (Ebert, 1998) and praise given to the realistic and brutal depiction of war and even being overwhelming for Veterans (The Times-Union, 1998).

Videogames depicting similar events, however, do not go in so much depth. Reasoning for this is not often explored, but the graphical processing required for it would be large and is likely the main reason limbs remain attached to bodies despite explosions, and similar things, and only blood is seen.

Conclusion

War in videogames has been a growing concept and, though considerably younger as an entertainment media than both movies and television, arguably it seems to have caught them up in regards to the maturity and realism as to what a videogame will portray. Though the actual depiction of war can vary wildly, with videogames as a medium having a more vast array of ways in which they can be produced unlike other entertainment forms, the various games still show war in similar ways; they show-case the realism and violence of it, they don’t shy away from that, and it is often used as a narrative tool in order to install high levels of emotion on the player. The lack of that could be de-sensitized when War is not like that, and the bonds of soldiers are a powerful thing. (Puiu, 2014)

Arguably what can be depicted by videogames in regards to warfare can only improve as technology and hardware does as such; with sales of militaristic videogames continuing to be high, this medium will likely have many more years to grow.


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